Is Inclusion over?

I’ve worked with young people with SEND my entire life. From volunteering to take young people with Muscular Dystrophy climbing when I was a teenager; through specialising in SEN in my teacher training;  to working on literacy in prisons and with some of the most vulnerable learners in my teaching career; to running a Lottery Funded Programme as part of my Red Cross helping young people with learning difficulties learn first aid; through to founding The Communication Trust and championing the needs of children and young people who struggle – often invisibly – with speech and language difficulties.

Now, many of our clients touch that world including the fabulous Driver Youth Trust and the school led London Leadership Strategy.

Over the years I have had to have many fights on access – can someone with Muscular Dystrophy abseil? (yep – if you adjust the mechanics, although experience says an electric wheelchair by a swimming pool can lead to an emergency rescue but that’s another blog); can a learner with Down Syndrome be trusted to do CPR? (yep if you break down instructions and allow lots of practice); can someone with ASD and communication difficulties be the spokeperson for a national speech and language campaign? (yep – who else would you have?).

I’ve had to argue the practicalities of access but I have – rarely and certainly with no significant challenge - had to fight the fundamental principle of inclusion.

Until now.

It feels like something horrible is happening. Insidious. Hard to quantify or to capture but there nevertheless.

Whether it is the unintended consequence of a market driven education strategy that pits school against school; or of a system that looks like it increasingly values homogeneity and conformity and a narrow range of exams; or of an approach where even brilliant heads can lose their job or be ‘converted’ if their results drop – or whether (shudder) it is a deliberate policy to remove young people who ‘aren’t like us’ from mixing with ‘our kids’ I don’t know.

But is it here.

Increasing anecdotes of schools pushing out – sometimes illegally but certainly on the edges of ethically – children and young people who are unlikely to achieve the gold standard at KS2 or EBACC. Recently experienced directly as a friend received an email from school after his son had been in a fight saying that ‘D has reached the threshold for permanent exclusion but as we (generously sic) don’t want that to be on his record we can offer him a place at a school partner better suited to his needs’.  The following set of emails was opaque and confusing and seemed to both ignore D’s acute difficulties with dyslexia, his ongoing challenges following the death of his mother and his otherwise unblemished record. However – a little demonstration that the parent had read the DfE guidance on exclusions changed the tone of school responses and suddenly the threat of a permanent exclusion was replaced with 3 day fixed term one. D was in the bottom set and very unlikely to achieve EBACC. The child who hit him was in the top set and has no exclusion letters of any kind.

Of course, a one off doesn’t evidence make. Except this isn’t. Indicators are everywhere.

The parent who was told her son couldn’t attend her school of choice because they had no SEND trained staff.

And the subsequent Twitter response to this comment from OFSTED that we were ‘talking about admissions over which they have no jurisdiction’ – the equivalent of ‘not my problem gov’ (although on pushing they did acknowledge that it might be an equalities issue - but only for children already in the school).

The Tweet on the ‘evidence’ that classmates of children who were disruptive because they had suffered domestic abuse suffered from a loss of earnings. That the purpose of education is seen to be valued in only monetary terms was bad enough (as were indeed the research standards) but that the approach was not to focus on needs of young people who were already vulnerable was breathtaking as it was heartbreaking. The Government’s Behaviour Expert Tom Bennett’s response was not for more support for teachers or schools to help vulnerable young people who had witnessed abuse – which Hestia puts at over 950 000 children in England a year so hardly a marginal issue - but rather to state that the research was just spelling out the evidence of impact of disruptive pupils on their peers.

The fearless Jarleth O’Brien @JarlethOBrien, Simon Knight @SimonKnight100, Marc Rowland @natedtrust_marc and Nancy Gedge @nancygedge regularly highlight the realities of the system’s move towards exclusion of the difficult. The redoubtable LKMCo report for Inclusion Trust on Pushed Out Learners is a must read.

And then read this from the Centre for High Performance.

Leaving aside that the report is poorly presented and appears to suggest that the authors actually support recommendation 4 (something which we are assured by Schools Week that they did not) the reality is that their evidence shows that ‘excluding poor quality pupils’ and ‘improving admissions’ is the way that many academies are achieving better outcomes. Exclusion is presented as a school improvement practice.

And that was the straw the broke the back. We are pulling together short summit. Date to follow and open to all comers. To gather together the emerging evidence and to consider the next steps. And part of those next steps has to be learning from those who are achieving AND including. LLS SEN Leaders Programme, the work of National Education Trust, schools across the country all highlight brilliant inclusive practice.

Do good schools sometimes exclude pupils? Of course. Are some children and young people better in special schools? Yes – and many special schools are exceptional and their work on inclusion in widest remarkable.

Is exclusion an acceptable route to better school standing in league tables? Never. Inclusion isn’t over. But neither is the battle for it that we thought had – at least in the main – been won many years ago.